October 23


he juries who determine the winners of the various Nobel Prizes are dedicated to the awarding of immortality; but the winners have to be alive to be eligible, and immortality is usually awarded, but then, hopefully, delayed. Today, in 1958, the Jury for the Nobel Prize for Literature unintentionally passed a death-sentence on the Russian poet and novelist Boris Pasternak.

A "malicious libel of the USSR", was how Foreign Minister Dmitri Shepilov described "Doctor Zhivago" when it first appeared, in translation, in Italy, in 1957, having been turned down for publication in the Soviet Union in 1955. Publishing overseas without permission was not likely to make its author very popular, and Pasternak could no longer rely on the personal goodwill of Comrade Stalin, because he was dead and about to be subjected to historical scrutiny by Nikita Kruschev. When the book started turning up all over the world, translated in a hurry into dozens of languages, and with, as we now know, the CIA gathering up as many copies as they could and distributing them through American embassies, as well as providing freebies in Russian for the Soviet trade delegation at the 1958 World Fair, the anger of the Soviet leadership turned to fury, and Pasternak was doomed.

He had been on the Nobel's nominations list for years; this book provided the jury with incontravertible evidence, and the verdict was unanimous. The citation described "his important achievement both in contemporary lyrical poetry and in the field of the great Russian epic tradition", and Pasternak at once accepted the verdict.

But then, almost as quickly, he wrote back to say thank you but no thank you. Pressured by Kruschev's cronies, fellow writers were lining up to dutifully denounce him, and he was told - as Solzhenitsyn would be later - that if he went to Oslo to accept the prize, he would never be allowed to return to Russia. Solzhenitsyn would accept both the prize and the expulsion; probably because he had survived a period in Siberia already and knew what it was like; probably because he remembered what had happened to Boris Pasternak.

Two years later Pasternak was dead, a man who had gone from vitality to atrophy in days. In his memoir, his son - who went to Oslo in 1990 to collect the prize, three years after the fall of Communism and two after "Doctor Zhivago" had finally been published in Russia - Yevgeny wrote of his "pale, lifeless face, tired painful eyes, and only speaking about the same thing: 'Now it all doesn't matter, I declined the Prize."

A fascinating account of Zhivago, through the eyes of Pasternak's friend Isaiah Berlin, can be read here - Berlin visited Pasternak at his dacha in the writers' colony at Peredelkino, in August 1956, and Pasternak gave him the manuscript, inviting him to smuggle it out for possible publication overseas.

And more on Pasternak, especially his connection with Mandelstam, in my "Private Collection" - click here.

Amber pages

Nicholas Appert, the French chef who invented the canning process, born today in 1752. I think I shall move this to his sell-by date, if I can find it, and then I can make a really awful morbid-joke...  no, just leave him on the shelf, ambered for all time, here. (Or maybe an excuse for a piece on Steinbeck's "Cannery Row", or a travelogue in the actual "Cannery Row", in Monterey, providing an excuse for a photo of its amazing Harbor Seal colony...)

Pierre Larousse, French grammarian and encyclopaedist, born today in 1817

William Coolidge, inventor of the X-ray tube, born today in 

Pele, or really Edson Arantes de Nascimento, Brazilian soccer great, born today in 

Oscar S. Straus became the first Jew appointed to the Cabinet in the USA - Secretary of Commerce and Labor - today in 1906. Many Straus references in this blog: December 23July 12, October 13

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